The shock of moving from life behind high fences to freedom in Maastricht

The shock of moving from life behind high fences to freedom in Maastricht

A room of one’s own

06-02-2023 · Interview

Kathryn van den Berg (25, South African/Dutch), a master’s student of Media Studies: Digital Cultures, lives on Boschstraat in a 16 m2 studio apartment with its own kitchenette, shower and toilet. She spends 692 euros per month on rent.

It wasn’t easy for her to find a room in Maastricht all the way from South Africa. Scouring the internet in early 2022, Kathryn van den Berg came across a description of a small studio apartment on Boschstraat (no photos, as the building was being renovated) and decided to risk it. She paid a €1000 deposit and bought a plane ticket to the Netherlands for mid-August. “It was very stressful. You hear stories about scams where the student arrives at the address and the room doesn’t exist.” That’s why she asked a fellow student, whom she had already met through their study programme’s group chat, to check whether the building actually existed. It did, and it was being renovated.

Just before Van den Berg left from Johannesburg, she heard that the renovations would not be completed in time. She quickly arranged a room at a B&B instead. “It was very expensive. The landlord didn’t compensate me for it, although I didn’t have to pay rent for that week. I was able to move in a week later, but the apartment still wasn’t finished. And no, I didn’t get a discount for it.”


She enjoys having her own shower, toilet and kitchenette, although she doesn’t actually cook much. “I just get microwave ready meals at Albert Heijn”, she laughs. “I’m not much of a cook. I’m very spoiled – my parents are real foodies who love to cook.”

She is less happy with the noise of the restaurant downstairs, every evening. Or the fact that the window doesn’t open; a fan supplies fresh air to the apartment. She also can’t see what the weather is like through the stained-glass window. “Two weeks ago, I learnt through WhatsApp that it was snowing. It was my first time seeing snow and building a snowman. I loved it. I had to take a few deep breaths in the first few minutes outside, though – there was something claustrophobic about those thick snowflakes.”

Long-distance relationship

She has covered one of the walls with photos of her parents (“we speak every day, they’re here for me when I’m having a rough day and they’re very proud of me”); her sister Samantha, who is two years her junior; her uncles, aunts, and cousins; and her boyfriend, Juan. He works in a pharmacy and lives just a few blocks from her parents in Johannesburg. They video call every day. “I found it very hard to leave him behind. We’ve been together for two years and we’ve always spent a lot of time together. But I knew our relationship was strong enough to handle long-distance. We often watch series remotely together, both on our tablets while on video call. It’s really nice. I miss him; I’ve been doing all these things that I would love to share with him, like visiting Belgium and Germany. I go on at least two trips per month. We love to travel, but we don’t do it as much in South Africa. It’s very expensive there.”

Culture shock

Juan is a very positive person, says Van den Berg. “He’s an optimist and he has a great sense of humour, just like my parents.” And that’s a good thing, as life in Maastricht is sometimes difficult for her. She not only feels lonely, this far away from her loved ones (“I’m a family person, my social life revolves more around my family than friends”), but she also struggles with culture shock. “In South Africa, we live behind high fences. It’s not safe there. You always have to be careful. You can’t just go for a walk or a bike ride – neither in Johannesburg nor in Stellenbosch, where I studied for four years. You can be robbed or assaulted. I was five years old, waiting with my sister in the car in the driveway, when criminals invaded our home and put a gun to my mother’s head. She screamed for my father, who wasn’t at home. At that same moment, I opened the car door and the criminals fled – they probably thought I was my father. We’re always at home, and if we want to go somewhere, we go to the mall. But so much of Dutch life takes place outdoors. You take walks through the park, go to a café, have drinks on a terrasje, hop on your bike… Everything is so easy here, but I’ve still got that paranoid South African mindset. I used to be stressed and I didn’t understand why. I’m in therapy now, which helps.”

The Netherlands

She knows one thing for sure: she would like to stay in the Netherlands, her grandfather’s country on her mother’s side. “I want to start a family someday, and I want my children to grow up in freedom.” Her boyfriend feels the same way. He has already been studying Dutch culture and learning the language. Her parents and sister are also determined to follow their eldest daughter. She is blazing the trail for all of them. “They wouldn’t move here if it wasn’t for me. They’ll come as soon as I have a job. Whenever I’m struggling, they encourage me by saying, ‘You’re doing so well, you’re doing this for all of us.’ It’s sweet, but it also puts a lot of pressure on me.”

Author: Riki Janssen

Photo: Ellen Oosterhof

Categories: news_top, People
Tags: kathryn van den berg,south-africa,the netherlands,long-distance relationship,master student media studies,instagram

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